Sometimes it’s fun to just hang around in practice instead of taking notes on every play or the details of a throwing or passing course.
I did it on Saturday enjoying the company of some Arkansas football legends, often my heroes and lately my friends.
For more than two hours on Saturday, I rubbed shoulders with and shared stories – in order – with Harold Horton, Chuck Dicus, Bobby Field, Louis Campbell, Robert Dew, Curt Davis, Charles Washington, Cliff and Judy Henry and Jimmy Walker . There were many more handshakes and hellos as we all made our way to a celebration for Dean Weber and Bill “Groundhog” Ferrell as a training room was named in their honor.
We talked ball or fishing. Campbell, my best friend, has just had rotator surgery and we are planning his first trip to the Norfork River, where I live, in two weeks.
Horton and I talked about crappie fishing, his passion. He was shocked when I showed him a picture of two 14 inch tiles from a recent trip.
Dicus and Pat Morrison recently fly fished with my son in law, Kristopher Bouldin.
“He’s the best I’ve been with,” Dicus said. “He really likes to talk about you and your fishing. You and I need to fish, but let’s wade, not boat.
But above all, we all talked about football, old and new.
It’s always interesting to hear what the old guys think of the new ones. They are no different from fans. In fact, they are straight-forward Razorbacks.
They all love and respect Sam Pittman and enjoy watching his practices. They approve of the way the practices are going and the way the players are trained. They are happy that the program is back.
The old linebackers like Bumper Pool and the young studs who flock around him. They applaud the precision of a Kendal Briles practice and love KJ Jefferson, Rocket Sanders, Ricky Stromberg and many more.
Former defensive backs give a thumbs up when they see Jalen Catalon reading a play and heading for the ball like a homing missile – never mind that he can’t kick while wearing a green shirt.
Occasionally, they might lament the fact that scrums aren’t really scrums anymore. No one is attacked, but the linemen strike and will complete the tested and difficult spring battle. They know that’s how you win, not by tearing a ball carrier’s knee. They all have these bad knees.
Horton quickly told me that Sanders was the best fullback on the court. He is naturally taller, runs with the right pad lean and has developed a north-south skill that is essential in Power 5 football.
But the fun thing to discuss with these guys is what they remember from their time. Dew, starter against Stanford in 1970 but quickly out with concussion issues, delighted to turn around to point up the East Stands lower deck.
“See how the slant changes about 30 rows from the top?” said the dew. “It gets noticeably steeper. I know how tough those last 30 steps are and how it feels to have Wilson Matthews watching you perform them. Those last 30 rows are exhausting. You can prove a point with these last 30 steps.
Dew then told the story of scoring a touchdown in a Shoats game against Tulsa at Skelly Stadium. The Shoats were the name of the freshman team.
He kicked the ball deep into the stands. When the bus returned to the dorm, Matthews was waiting.
“Meet me at the stadium tomorrow at 6 a.m.,” Matthews said.
When they walked to the middle of the stands, there was a barrel full of soccer balls.
Matthews gestured to another barrel placed on the top row of bleachers.
“Those footballs are all supposed to be in this barrel, not this one,” Matthews said.
Dew said he caught three and left.
“No,” Matthews shouted. “Take them one at a time.”
Matthews sat in the front row of bleachers as Dew led them one at a time.
“He never looked up,” Dew said. “He was reading your dad’s column in the Arkansas Gazette.”
When Dew came down after the last of what was probably 50 footballs had been placed in the correct barrel, Matthews said, “Never throw a football into the stands again.”
Not only did Dew not make this mistake, no one else did either. The news spreads quickly.
It’s the kind of story that makes a practice disappear for a few minutes. I love them. This is what excites me in my work. It ceases to be work.
I know I’m lucky. I’m one of the few to hear this stuff. Nate Allen too.
In fact, Nate and I were in the middle of a visit with Horton when Walker turned to join in the conversation. He spoke of a nephew from Texas who was coming to visit soon.
“He’s a 3 star, but he can play,” Walker said. “I hope we will deliver. His name is Bruce Mitchell and he looks like Bruce. There are a lot of good players in Texas and he’s good but we’re on a lot of good players. It’s harder to get a scholarship here now with what Sam has done to see the campus. It’s good.”
Walker then began joking with Horton about how they worked in the mid-1970s.
“You were the toughest coach I ever had,” Walker said. “I got yelled at a lot. It was a lot of work. You seem a lot happier now than you were when we were training on this pitch. Why, you even smile.
“Oh, I smiled, but I usually stood right behind you guys,” Horton said. “There was a lot to smile about looking at you from that angle.”
Walker teamed up with Dan Hampton, Dale White and Reggie Freeman to torment a big Arkansas offensive line in practice. They also did that in Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Washington liked what he saw of corners and safeties. He pointed to good plays and said, “Yeah,” as defensive backs were breaking in properly and taking the right angles. He talked more about the good technique he saw. Henry joined this discussion. Washington played both safety and corner. Henry played it safe.
The discussion was about the difficulty of finding corners, perhaps the key to playing good defense these days.
“I preferred safety and made a lot more plays there,” Washington said. “But the coaches always made me back up in the corner. I could never make games.
Eventually, the three of us determined the root of the problem. Washington was such a good covering corner that the ball went to the opposite side of the field.
As practice wrapped up, the men of letters – some with women – headed to the game day locker room where the celebration for Weber and Ferrell took place. Some 300 chairs were positioned in the middle of the magnificent dressing room. All were filled. There wasn’t an open seat at a locker and people were standing 10 in the back.
It was a fun time. Quinn Grovey opened the celebration by asking anyone in the room to raise their hand if they had been insulted by Weber. Many raised both hands. I may have been wrong but I was thinking of a female hand in the air. It was hilarious.
Weber and Ferrell roasted but mostly grilled in grand style. The love poured out and everyone felt good. Weber’s health is not good, but he must have felt fine on Saturday. Players told how he put them back together with duct tape or harsh words or a gentle pat on the back. The profession of trainer is as much about psychology as it is about medical knowledge.
There’s a lot of good and fun on campus in Arkansas right now. If you are a former player in any sport, you like what you see. Your legacy is honored by the efforts of current coaches and players.
But it is important that the football is good enough for the literati to come back with pride. You don’t have to celebrate a coach to bring a player back into the stadium. They will be there when the games take place this fall and beam with pride.
They’ll point to where they puke working hard for Wilson Matthews and think the current Razorbacks do the same for Sam Pittman.